Pandemics in American History

The conversation about the meaning of “Columbus Day” moved me to get better educated about the early history of the Americas. That history does have lessons for us today.

Before the first European traders began to frequent the shores of North and South America, the Indigenous peoples had built great civilizations with sophisticated technologies. There were great empires, great religions, great cities and many areas of settled agricultural cultivation.

The first contacts with Europeans brought new diseases to the Americas that killed a huge percentage of the Indigenous population. Repeated fatal pandemics burned across the Americas. An eyewitness to just one of several smallpox epidemics that swept across Inca territory in the mid 1500s said

“They died by scores and hundreds. Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the fields or piled up in the houses or huts . . . The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach.”

Hopkins (1983), Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History, as quoted in Mann (1983) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, 102.

No one knows the exact numbers of deaths, but estimates run far above half of the population in many areas. Many later arriving Europeans underestimated Indigenous populations and civilizations because what they encountered were the remnants of civilizations that had already been shattered by pandemics.

Consider the level of political upheaval we’ve had as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with a population loss of under one percent, much lower than in some earlier pandemics, supply chains are fraying and the conflicts we are having about health policy and the role of government are increasingly bitter and consequential. Imagine if half of the population had died. All confidence in established leadership would be lost. Self-promoting charlatans and conspiracy theorists would reign supreme. We would be vulnerable to famine, general economic collapse, authoritarianism, and perhaps even occupation by healthier nations.

That was precisely what many Indigenous peoples were experiencing as Europeans began to encroach with settlements and an insatiable thirst for natural resources. Not only were Indigenous peoples already greatly reduced in numbers, but the social fabric and governance structures of their societies had been weakened, reducing their ability to effectively organize themselves to resist European occupation.

But for the happenstance of Indigenous vulnerability to European disease, Indigenous peoples might have had the strength to confine Europeans to limited trading outposts along the coast. Indigenous peoples might have succeeded in playing European powers against each other over the long term and they might have maintained their demographic and territorial dominance for centuries longer, perhaps even until today.

I take two main lessons from this reading:

First, let us support the Massachusetts Indigenous legislative agenda, which is about recognizing the dispossession and genocide that befell Indigenous civilizations and European responsibility in that cascade of injustices. Not that we can undo the past, but we should know the history, understand our place in it, and honor the survivors. We should not deny the contamination, chicanery, greed, betrayal, and outright brutal savagery through which some Europeans acquired territory and displaced Indigenous people across two great continents.

Second, let us recognize our own vulnerability to nature, in particular to disease and to climate change. We are going to have to keep investing in the life sciences that may help us control the current and the next pandemic and in the physical sciences that may give us better energy options.

It will take more than good science to grapple with disease and climate change. Good science is a good start, but public health and economic sustainability also depend on political leaders who embrace collaboration rather than conflict. The conflicts we have experienced in the COVID-19 pandemic may foreshadow greater political challenges to come.


Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

55 replies on “Pandemics in American History”

  1. Hi Senator Brownsberger,

    Thank you for this perspective and resources. I find human migration and the peopling of continents fascinating.

    Pertaining to this pandemic I hope we don’t forget to recognize the sacrifices we made both the willing and those with no choice but to be marshaled into the front lines and die for the economy. I hope we don’t see a star-studded spectacle, but rather an honest account of who lost and benefited by the Governor’s Emergency granted measures. I’m not saying he had a choice in timing of various measures, just begging for transparency. Thank you.

    1. Really well taken, Fred. We should never forget that people in certain roles and occupations took the greatest risks and experienced the greatest losses and hardships in the pandemic — health care workers, first responders and people in essential jobs like grocery clerk and delivery drivers. Our last ARPA bill devoted $500 million for premium pay for low-income essential workers.

      1. Thank you so much. The ARPA very much needed to BEGIN to repay the heroic sacrifice American workers made to keep their families fed and to keep the country from total collapse and inch back from the precipice and preserve the fortunes of the moneyed empowered class.

        I’m sure that many years from now, when it’s safe to do so, someone will write a book about the Massachusetts response to the Covid-19 crisis. The state had to balance managing social unrest, throttling and balancing economic activity and acceptable human losses. I understand the Governor’s records are protected, but I’m so curious about all the consultations he and his advisors had in formulating the response. I think that book will have a very Frontline vibe.

        1. And, I don’t see us giving back land to people who first populated these continents. The spirit that European ancestors silent when leaders drafted policies and entrepreneurs sent murderers out to slaughter their way west, that spirit of silence and greed is alive today at every zone of displacement and gentrification. When rent control is outlawed. When fire departments don’t allow churches to feed the poor. &c. &c.

  2. Yes we are relentless and victorious It’s time to take our lives back!! No mandates no masks breathe a complete full breathe without toxic carbon dioxide. WooHooo!!

  3. It is time to end mandates and save what is left of our economy. If someone wants to wear masks, God speed. A large percentage of the population is vaccinated, which failed to stop us from getting Covid, but was enough that it’s like getting the flu. The most heart wrenching video was a group of children cheering that the mask mandate for them in school, was being lifted. With herd immunity, so many people have had Covid and don’t even know it.

  4. Thank you for these insightful reflections. They really help situate our present experience in the larger arc of history. I really appreciate your call of support for the present advocacy agenda of Massachusetts’s indigenous community, as a step forward in reckoning with our country’s history of extraction and exploitation, as well as the call for continued investment in science and collaborative approaches.

  5. Yes and thank you for these thoughts on your reading.
    One cannot be a reader of literature and not confront continually through human history how pandemics have wreaked havoc on all populations. Thank goodness for the science that has given us the ability to control smallpox, polio and now covid. It is heartening that most people do follow the science.
    Thank you for your good work.

  6. Thank you for such an informed articulation of this important issue, as it applies both historically and to our current day challenges. We are so fortunate to have you representing us here in the Massachusetts Senate.

  7. Thank you very much for your well-considered piece on remembering our history. I have just one little quibble: as I child, I was horrified at seeing an illustration in our encyclopedia about Aztec human sacrifice, ripping out the heart of the victim. Still see it in my mind! But I’m sure you would not include this in “great religions.” I appreciate having such an intelligent and compassionate person representing us. Would that this were true of the entire country

    1. Fair point. Sadly, many of the religions of the world have been sullied by gruesome acts done in their name. I mean “great” in the sense of highly organized and subscribed to by large masses of people. I am not well enough informed to pass judgment on how indigenous religions shaped the lives of their adherents.

    2. When we consider the images we have seen of various religious practices, we must consider the source and possible biases present in the artist. When looking at ritualistic cultural practices from the outside – ALL religions that I know of have ritualistic practices that stem for their cultural beliefs. It is important to understand as much as you can about the culture that has created that practice. Catholics take the host and eat at as a priest says to them that it is “the body of christ”…I imagine that many who did not understand what this meant might think this was barbaric.

  8. Thank you for this article. What happened to the indigenous people is heartbreaking. We should be aware, however, that this was nothing new. It has been happening throughout human history. Powerful people want land and resources, so they invade and engage in war to get what they want. It has happened over and over again since people first walked on earth.

  9. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of pandemics past and present and thank you for your support of the Indigenous legislative agenda which is important legislation that needs to be passed. Also, thank you for the list of resources so that I, and others, can continue to increase our understanding of our shared history.

  10. Claims that climate change mandate unilateral U.S. energy policy changes typically refrain from considering those new policies’ impact on U.S. strength in the international world order, even as the leading contenders for power have made no such costly decisions to abandon fossil fuel. The U.S. arguably should begin from the impact on U.S. national security of unilaterally transferring energy dominance and manufacturing dominance to countries which wish to harm U.S. strength. Many climate change proponents in the U.S. try to claim that anyone who would differ with them on energy policy is scientifically illiterate. But would current domestic energy policies in response to climate change be defensible if one began by considering the consequences of shifting manufacturing and energy strength to countries to other leading powers? We are arguably weakening ourselves in a way which will come back to harm us in a situation of international conflict. When countries solely focus on domestic considerations, and don’t ground economic or energy policy in security consequences or economic impact on the most vulnerable in our country, there are likely to be consequences which are not welcome. Informed opposition to our currently popular energy policy responses is being drowned out. Arguably, the U.S. should not be destroying domestic fossil fuel energy firm capabilities as a matter of federal regulatory and financial market policy, because other leading powers are not similarly handicapping themselves, and therefore the environmental impact is trivial. The costs of this conversion are very high internationally and also domestically regressive.

  11. I agree with Lynn’s comments. This “uncivilized” aggressive behavior still continues today in various parts of the world, including oppression of indigenous people in Brazil, Myanmar and China, to name but a few.

  12. William McNeill’s classic history, “Plagues and Peoples,” really opened my eyes about this topic. It’s nearly 50 years old now, but it still feels as fresh and relevant as it did when first published. Complex yet accessible. Highly recommended.

  13. The biggest misconception about pandemics is the concept of heard immunity. Heard immunity only can suppress the virus to a background level and will always be there. It does not eradicate the virus. That is done by vaccination. A good example is small pox. That has been around for centuries. It was finally eradicated in the 1970’s by vaccination.

    1. But this vaccine is a shot much like a flu shot, not at all a vaccine it does not stop or eradicate covid ! Not at all like small pox or measles vaccine .. Apples and oranges !

  14. I’m a Russian immigrant who’s now lived in Massachusetts for over 15 years. I was once struck to learn that “Massachusett” was a Native word for the people who lived here. In 15 years living here I haven’t met a single Massachusett. That says it all, pretty much.

    I’d like to know more on what specifically the “Indigenous legislative agenda” means. Specific proposals, policies, bills, etc?

  15. Will,
    Thank you for this thoughtful discussion. I would add that in destroying the indigenous civilizations, we lost their examples of living harmoniously and respectfully with nature and have instead done terrible damage to the ecosystems we depend on.
    See Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass”

  16. The U.S. government’s colonial policy today is more sophisticated than that of the European states hundreds of years ago. In the case of countries strong enough to fight off blatant military conquest, or able to make it too costly for us to invade and occupy them, our government cleverly freezes the assets of recalcitrant target nations who are to be subjugated.
    And sets up economic blockades to deny their peopulations food and medicines. Or uses compliant rogue-state cutouts to brutalize them for us. The multinational corporations (who own our government) profit nicely from all this. While our political rulers and the multinational CEOs can plausibly claim not to have actual innocent blood on their hands. Ain’t progress wonderful?

  17. And to redress the impacts upon: education, food, housing, healthy, internet access.

    That requires legislation and cooperation between municipalities and the commonwealth, and a lot more.

  18. Thank you, Will, for this informative and thoughtful essay, and in particular for this statement: “We are going to have to keep investing in the life sciences that may help us control the current and the next pandemic….”

    Sadly, this worldwide pandemic is far from over, and the conditions which can fuel future pandemics – crowded dense population centers, easy quick travel between cities, regions, countries, continents – are already in place. Beyond needed investment in the life sciences, investments in public health infrastructure and in surge capacity for medical care would be prudent.

  19. I feel the presence of the Indigenous peoples as I walk on their lands.
    Sincere thanks for this Will.

    1. I do too. Walking in forests and meadows and standing on the Truro beach staring into the primordial sea. When there’s no ship on the sea or in the sky you can walk with the ancestors.

  20. Thank you Will for this thought provoking post. Do you share this with our US reps and senators?

  21. My 9th grader submitted the survey that her school sent out to students, parents and staff regarding the lifting of the mask mandate and what she wrote absolutely gutted me. It made me cry. With her permission, I’m sharing with all of you so you can get a student’s perspective:

    Ever since the first day of school, masks have made me suffer in various ways mentally and physically. For the past few months I’ve had to deal with dozens of tonsil stones (often causing me pain), inflamed tonsils, throat infections, overproduction of mucus, headaches and fatigue. All of which I just mentioned, I’ve suffered from this past school week. I get overheated by wearing a mask, even though I’m wearing short sleeves and it’s 2 degrees outside. In September, I broke out in hives on my legs often and had to briefly pull my mask away in order to cool off. I’m in ‘Spectrum: A Cappella Ensemble’ here at PVPA, and when I sing, I can’t get enough air in to support my singing. I don’t know what many of my friends really look like. I don’t know what my teachers look like. It depresses me and everyday I get home I’m mentally drained. I can’t give 100% in the classroom because the masks drain my energy. These masks are affecting my education. I wait to go into school until 8:25 just so I don’t have to wear it any longer than I have to instead of going to see my friends. I get acne from wearing masks, and it makes me insecure. The suicide rates have skyrocketed from these masks, and nobody ever talks about that.
    Considering how small our school is compared to the average American public school, and our high vaccination rate, I see NO reason why we can’t make masks optional. There’s been so much research done proving that masks are ineffective at preventing COVID. When will it ever be time to take them off?? WHEN? COVID IS NOT GOING AWAY AND WE NEED TO LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT.
    Brent Neilsen has said that this school follows DESE guidelines, and this is no exception.

    Knowing my fellow peers, most people will continue wearing masks. In fact, I’m afraid I’ll lose all of my friends if I take the mask off, considering their negative reaction to hearing that masks could become optional after February 28th. I need you adults to realize what you’re doing to my generation. I’m also scared my teachers will judge me. I’m 14 years old, and these are NOT things I should be worried about. It shouldn’t be this way, and the longer you extend this, the longer people will think that masks divide the line between life and death. They don’t. If you’re getting COVID, it’s hard to avoid. Everyone can still be encouraged to wear the masks, but this is for my health. My actual well-being. These masks are affecting me greatly. All around the country, kids get to live a normal life and I’m sick of all of the fear. Please consider my words, I beg you.

    1. I doubt she’ll get static for not wearing a mask once they’re optional, and we should all formally recognize the heroism and sacrifice of our kids for saving countless lives, and I think kids are smart enough and mannered enough to understand that those who still wear a mask are probably protecting immunocompromised family.

    2. Very sad story and is quite a common story. A society is judged by how they treat their children. The cowardly, ignorant, selfish and brainwashed have damaged a generation of children. We need to stop this insanity now and ensure it never happens again. We must take back our rights from these despicable tyrants.

    1. All part of the part of the campaign to to harass and vilify a group of people. Will’s highlighting of injustices from centuries ago rings a bit hollow given his support for segregation today.

  22. Hi Will,
    Thank you for sharing a little of the history of the indigenous people on who’s land we now live because of our forefather’s genocide waged against them.
    For more history of our country, I highly recommend “These Truths: a History of the United States” by Harvard University Professor, Jill Lepore as well as the daily “Letters from an American” by Boston College Professor, Heather Cox Richardson.

    1. It just occurred to me that we endorse our forefathers actions with each generation? Would we have opposed them if transported back in time? Has our nature changed?

  23. Let’s go to the past to skirt the doubt, history means something to address our sense of dignity on our historic trajectory culminating to who we are now. I think we should address/acknowledge this.. but this Covid era will be history also, someday.

    And how open, in an openminded way are we to are we addressing this now? Alternatives discounted, despite research..Natural immunity discounted.. nasel spray -nitro oxic as a treatment(I may have spelling wrong..but look it up)..Vaers is questionable..And where did dialogue go on this virus as released by Wuhan lab? Maybe needs part of studies of this virus?

    Finally Mayor Wu has a criteria for lifting the mandates..

    Thanks Will for your receptiveness in hearing me out..let’s have action.

  24. 1. (This?). We can’t change the past. We can’t undo the past. We can (in theory ) meaningfully restore and make whole the indigenous people, but we are morally, or practically equipped to do so. I am morally opposed to organized gambling, but Barney Frank was not wrong to say we are free to do what we want. I don’t know his motivations were- I’m not an insider. Indigenous people have a right to get rich at the conqueror’s expense. We would be well to grok all of their ways for nature may conquer us. And, materialism needs temperance.

    2. We need to get our house in order. We can’t wait for the authors and beneficiaries of climate denial to come around. There are many tells of the awareness climate deniers of the coming storm baked into and percolating within their agenda, but it’s couched in jingoism and nativism. The border wall to name one. I doubt that hearts and minds of the mainstream, “All lives matter,” center/ center-right of the Democratic Party are free from the fears driving the Neo-Republican juggernaut. We may not have won the Cold War if you consider the apparent comfort the free states of the world has with engaging with states of tyranny. I am a hypocrite as I won’t not buy something that says made in China. But, I feel less defeated when something says Made in Taiwan. (My iPhone suggested China) I would love to ask our return Olympians if the Administration’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics over human rights atrocities and abuses, and the athletes’ own knowledge of lifelong internment in concentration camps, forced sterilization, brainwashing, torture, ethnic reeducation, family separation, the list goes on- I’d like to ask our Olympians if any of that had their conscience niggling at them at all? We need to better educate all of our children in all area of study. We should doubt all we see and hear and be driven to primary sources and open the circles of engagement with power and enfranchisement.

  25. Speaking of pandemics and the movements of populations. Invasions are history’s major people-mover. Lt. Col. Vindman (Ret.) today called U.S. punitive sanctions against Rus. invasion little more than, “window dressing.” Why did we not have the fortitude to make a movement in Ukr. months ago that would have allowed for negotiations that would be a little more brinkmanship-y and courageous?

  26. Speaking of pandemics and the movements of populations. Invasions are history’s major people-mover. Lt. Col. Vindman (Ret.) today called U.S. punitive sanctions against Rus. invasion little more than, “window dressing.” Why did we not have the fortitude to make a movement in Ukr. months ago that would have allowed for negotiations that would be a little more brinkmanship-y and courageous? Why are we do dependent and feckless?

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